Welcome to Late-Night Laughs, Deadline’s new weekly look at the business of jokes after dark. Each week, it will focus on the biggest topics in the world of late-night, the people who make these shows tick and the moments that go viral. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with any tips or suggestions.
This week, we’re focusing on how the nightly broadcast shows have returned to the studio – The Tonight Show, The Late Show, The Late Late Show, Late Night and Jimmy Kimmel Live! are all back in their traditional homes. I’ve spoken to the showrunners to find out how they did it and what’s next.
Late-night legend David Letterman, who once lost out to the Kennedy Center for an Emmy, was back for the virtual telecast last weekend. I follow up a suggestion of future changes to the late-night category following Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s fifth consecutive win.
There’s also a regular feature on rising stars in late-night; each week, we’ll profile someone making waves in the genre, someone who might go on to become the next big name in comedy.
“WEIRD, BUT NICE”: HOW LATE-NIGHT RETURNED TO THE STUDIO
James Corden spent Wednesday drinking hot dog juice and eating ants with Alicia Keys. The most remarkable thing about The Late Late Show’s Spill Your Guts segment wasn’t the disgusting snacks, however, it was the fact that the Brit was in the same room as one of his guests.
The CBS show returned to the studio on August 11, previously having spent months filming in Corden’s garage. “That [segment] felt like the turning point for the COVID show in that it suddenly felt like we were back in our stride,” The Late Late Show exec producer Ben Winston tells Deadline. “This week has felt like we’ve got our show back.”
Winston admits that he and his team were “desperate” to get back into the studio, which they redesigned over the summer, with Corden now sitting where the audience used to be, albeit with COVID-19 safety protocols such as social distancing, masks and testing and a much-reduced crew of about 16 people.
“We were tired of doing the show in the garage,” he says. “We really want to try and make a variety show each and every day, and a lot of our show is sketches and bits and field pieces.”
This is a similar case for Jimmy Fallon, whose Tonight Show was the first of the late-night shows to return to the studio, in their case 6A in 30 Rock, on July 13.
Showrunner Gavin Purcell laughs that he felt like a guinea pig being the first late-night show back. “We just wanted people to be able to get back to work. It was a little about trying to find some semblance of normalcy,” he tells Deadline. “It felt like it was time. I started to feel, and I think this is the case for almost all production, [viewers] were starting to get sick of people at home. In the beginning, it was a cool moment, then it became too much of a reflection of what the regular world is.”
Fallon opened his first show back at 30 Rock with a song, “It’s Beginning to Look a Bit Like Normal.” It obviously wasn’t, and Purcells admits it was quite the adjustment. But on that first show back, and on subsequent shows, Fallon performed a number of sketches, including a fake ad for Masculine Man Masks and an ’80s throwback called I Like Your Style, things that he wasn’t able to do when his wife Nancy shot the show at their house. “The biggest difference for us is we’re a show that does bigger stuff — not having an audience is really tricky. Trying to figure out the rhythm of a show that is audience-based without an audience is something that’s been a challenge but I think we’re getting there,” he says.
While they now have access to hair, makeup and wardrobe, sketches obviously require quick changes, which are more difficult. Purcell says that the next step for The Tonight Show is trying to “open the door to a couple of other people involved in sketches” so it’s not just Fallon.
The Late Late Show’s Winston says that it was important to get the whole team back to work, even if it was different. The CBS show has had a musical parody featuring Dua Lipa and a comedy sketch with Usher, who was Corden’s first in person guest back in the studio, as well as an ambitious drive-in concert series from Keys in the Television City car park.
“We built sets again, we’re using carpenters again, we’re using set designers again,” he says. “It’s important that we’re using all of our crews, using their skills again and being creative. It’s not just about keeping everyone employed, it’s also about keeping everyone involved and stimulated. It’s really different, and it takes a lot longer. We used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could bang out a sketch in half an hour with any talent because the lighting guys, the prop guys and the camera guys are all working at the same time. Now they’re not.”
The Late Show returned the same night as The Late Late Show, though while Stephen Colbert was back in the Ed Sullivan Theater, he was not on his usual stage. Colbert said that his team created a replica of his office, clad with his belongings including a map of Charleston, a photo of his dog and his Lord of the Rings books. “The Beatles, granted, did not perform in here, but the girls still went crazy when Ringo came up here to make copies,” he said. “My staff has done an amazing job turning this into a studio.
Showrunner Mike Shoemaker says being back in Studio 8G in 30 Rock was “weird but good.” “It’s weird in that a big percentage of staff is still at home, so the offices are like a deserted set in a movie about a pandemic,” he says. “But it feels safe and it feels like it’s the right time to try to start re-entry. An empty Studio 8G is so much easier than the attic or the Captain’s Quarters. Seth doesn’t have to load the prompter or make the props anymore. We are back in the hands of professionals again.”
Late Night had the benefit of The Tonight Show being back for nearly two months. Shoemaker says that he leaned on advice from Fallon and Purcell. “From the first day, Jimmy said it felt safe and NBC had really organized testing and masking protocols perfectly and that was a big load off of my mind,” he said. “The Tonight Show was really the test case, and by the time we came back, all the bugs were out of the system.”
Jimmy Kimmel Live! returned to the El Capitan on September 21, the night after he hosted the virtual Emmys on ABC. The show was back after Kimmel’s summer break, which saw a slew of guest hosts including Kerry Washington and Anthony Anderson front the show.
For exec producer Sharon Hoffman, it was the first time that she met many of the staff and crew in person, having replaced Jill Leiderman in May. “I started the job remotely, just before the summer, and so even with all the changes and restrictions it’s wonderful to be there and finally meet the team in person,” she tells Deadline. “For the staff, and particularly members of the crew, there’s a warmth and appreciation for getting to work together with colleagues again and getting back even a tiny bit of normalcy.”
As with all of the other shows, Jimmy Kimmel Live! modified its set. The office was divided into zones — A includes the stage, B has the booth, C is home — anyone who works closely with Kimmel wears a face shield and gets tested twice a week, and there’s a tent in the parking lot for lunch with long tables and chairs set up six feet apart, which Hoffman jokes is like a high school cafeteria.
“We all joke about the annoyance of mask acne and sneaking food into the office, as it’s not allowed inside, but the fact is, everyone is grateful and excited to be working, and so the jokes are just to let off steam, Hoffman. “The protocols are strict, but they’re easier to bear when you remind yourself why you’re doing all of it. I’m not sure I would say it’s easier than the at-home shows, but we definitely have some more flexibility and technical capability now.”
The former Entertainment Tonight EP said that her fellow late-night showrunners have been very “welcoming” and “generous” with sharing experience. “We talk every once in a while on Zoom. Obviously, we are all competitive, but at the end of the day we all want each other to succeed.”
Although the majority of broadcast late-night shows are back in the studio (A Little Late with Lilly Singh has yet to start shooting Season 2, but NBC told Deadline it will film in the fourth quarter 2020), crews still are limited and the majority of writers, segment producers and editors are working from home.
Next up for all shows is getting guests regularly back into the studio, as well as audiences. But Shoemaker posits that this might never truly be the case. “If you’re a big movie star and you want to promote your film in pajamas, who is going to be able to talk you out of it? So, I am officially offering Oprah a Zoom room dedicated to her for life,” he said.
EMMYS: LATE-NIGHT AWARDS DEBATE LOOMING?
It was nice to have David Letterman back during Sunday’s Emmys telecast. Directed by Whitney Conway, the hitchhiking skit saw the comedian pick up where he left off in 1986, when he hosted the Emmys with Shelley Long. That year, NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson lost out in the Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program to The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts.
That category was separated in 2015 to become Outstanding Variety Talk Series and Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, a couple of years after The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had won 10 times in a row.
Former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver is closing in on that record with five straight wins. Don’t get me wrong, I love Last Week Tonight and I’m a big fan of Oliver’s self-deprecating wit (and he’s a fellow Liverpool FC fan). It’s just that what Oliver and the Last Week Tonight team does is so different to what Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah do. The likes of The Late Show and The Daily Show aired over 150 episodes during the Emmys’ last eligibility period, while Last Week Tonight aired 25. They are very different shows.
One late-night showrunner suggested that there potentially is another way to split the categories. How about Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Real Time with Bill Maher as well as new series such as Peacock’s Wilmore and The Amber Ruffin Show compete in a combined category with shows like Saturday Night Live and A Black Lady Sketch Show?
Given that Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, which was won by SNL for a fourth consecutive time, only had three nominees and 14 submissions, would that make it fairer for the nightly shows?
Admittedly, this is largely the same argument for giving broadcast scripted shows — generally shut out in favor of cable and streaming shows — their own category. It is not a new debate for the Academy with network bosses, including ABC’s Karey Burke, saying publicly that they would like to see different considerations.
LATE-NIGHT’S RISING STAR: ‘THE DAILY SHOW’S JOSH JOHNSON
Deadline is shining a spotlight on some of the most exciting writers to rise up on the late-night beat. Who are the late-night writers that will go on to run shows, host, perform and create the the hottest comedies on TV and film?
On that note … congratulations to Anna Drezen, who recently was named Head Writer at Saturday Night Live, and to Dewayne Perkins, Shantira Jackson, and Demi Adejuyigbe, who were recently named writers on Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show.
This week’s focus is on The Daily Show’s Josh Johnson.
Johnson is a stand-up, writer and performer from Louisiana by way of Chicago. Having run a variety show in Chicago, he made his late-night debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and has been working on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah since 2017. “I was fortunate enough to have my comedy seen by people who already worked at the show as well as enter the show’s orbit through an audition for The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” he tells Deadline.
On The Daily Show, he regularly writes with correspondent Dulcé Sloan and has had a hand in her sketches including 911 for White People and her bits about how to handle getting fired properly by Trump. “We were friends even before we both ended up at the show, so our senses of humor complement each other in pieces,” he says.
Johnson says that his comedy influences include Bill Burr, Johnny Carson and Chris Rock. “Johnny Carson was really the biggest because even before I got into comedy, I knew he was teaching a masterclass on charisma as well as being funny,” he says. “One night, really late, when I was very young, I stayed awake so I could watch Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker. My mom had fallen asleep, and I had to keep the volume on the TV and my laughter very low so she didn’t wake up. I remember I was trying so hard to stifle my laughter that I teared up, and there was no pause on the TV, so I was just in awe of this man consistently killing.”
He has released stand-up specials on Comedy Central and was part of Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup and has been out on the road with Noah as part of the Loud & Clear tour. But Johnson says that the best thing about working in late-night is the number of chances you get to be funny. “We’re doing this four times a week when it comes to taping, so that’s plenty of time and energy to try anything you can think of.”
The Daily Show has yet to return to the studio, and Johnson says the hardest thing about writing in the pandemic is missing people. “There’s definitely the opportunity to hit people up over text and Zoom calls, but there’s nothing like the vibes of being next to the person you’re writing with or just popping my head in to say hi and ask what they think of a joke I wrote.”
Thank you and good night.
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